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Text World Theory

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Text World Theory is a cognitive-linguistic model of human discourse processing that serves as a methodology within cognitive linguistics, based in cognitive psychology.:[1] It addresses mental pictures that are being created by the reader of a text. It emphasizes that linguistically competent human beings process language through these mental pictures, with cognitive maps, behavioral scripts and Idealized Cognitive Models. They vary in precise constitution per reader, because they are peculiar to said reader. These mental pictures are coined text-worlds. These text-worlds enable humans to conceptualise and understand language. How these text-worlds are formed, their conceptual configuration, and how humans make use of them are the focus of Text World Theory.[2]

Text World Theory is a discourse framework. This means that it is concerned not just with how a particular text is constructed but how the context surrounding that text influences its production and reception.[3][4] Understanding the complexity of the context is the key to Text World Theory.[4] This is done by seperating every discourse into a series of distinct conceptual levels.


The methodology was originally developed by Paul Werth during the 1980s and 1990s and the concept was introduced in 1999, with the publication of Text Worlds: representing conceptual space in discourse. In his book, Werth analyses the context in which text and discourse are perceived, through examination of how humans make sense of complex sentences in order to express certain concepts. It also introduces texts-worlds for the first time.[5] Werth claimed "to have devised a methodological framework capable of accounting for the cognitive processes behind the production and interpretation of all forms of human communication: from telephone conversation to dramatic performance, from church sermons to newspaper reports."[1] Werth had become dissatisfied with Chomsky’s objective approach which left out subjectivity and rejected the importance of the context. Werth understood that texts are strongly connected to the context they are written and read in.[3]

However, the model still needed further development.[6] This was done by Mick Short at the University of Lancaster at first[6], and later by Joanna Gavins. She wrote Text World Theory: An Introduction. In this book, Text World Theory is explained using naturally occurring texts and real situations.[7] Important terms within Text World Theory include:


The conceptual levels that are a central concept within Text World Theory, are coined worlds. They include:


The discourse-world deals with the immediate situation which surrounds human beings as they communicate with one another. The conscious presence of at least one speaker or writer and one or more listeners or readers is essential for a discourse-world to exist. This is because the discourse-world contains not only those sentient beings participating in the discourse and the objects and entities which surround them, but all the personal and cultural knowledge those participants (or actors) bring with them to the language situation.[8][3] Discourse worlds assume that the linguistic communication is done wilfully. This means that if the language is not understood (i.e. what we say is met with confusion, what we hear does not make sense), the act of repeating, re-structuring, clarifying or explaining is called negotiation.[9]

Imparting or gaining knowledge is the motivation behind linguistic communication. Text World Theory provides a framework which is context-sensitive (i.e. the background of the participants in the communication is crucial).[10] Whenever there is a fissure in knowledge between the participants in a world, there is a process of incrementation of knowledge.[10] In this case, knowledge can be perceptual or sensory, but it could also be based on earlier experience (experiental knowledge), which is known as knowlegde based on a behavioral script.[11] Knowledge can also be purely cultural.[12]

In a normal discourse world, the participants communicate face-to-face. Written text, on the other hand, creates a split discourse-world where participants do not communicate face-to-face.[13] They don’t share time, nor space. This is also true for radio, television, recorded monologues etc. The voluntary aspect of the communication is still assumed. In such cases the material world is less evident, and has to be specified if needed. In such cases, there is more work of imagining the teller on the part of the listener (and more room for mistakes). This is true across time, geographical distance, cultural distance, and personal distance.


As the human beings in the discourse-world communicate with eachother, they construct mental representations of the discourse in their minds, in which the language being produced can be conceptualised and understood. In other words, language creates a new reality, known as text-worlds. In earlier works within psychology, these mental representations are also known as:

  • Schemata;
  • Mental models;
  • Cognitive models;
  • Mental spaces;
  • Conceptual frames.

In essence, a text-world is the same as a discourse-world, only without the presence of a speaker. The information that the speaker (writer) has to put in the text-world is the information that does not need putting-in in cases of discourse world: to explain the where, when, who, what. These are called world building elements in Text World Theory.[14] These help transfer the reader into the text-world. This transfer is called projection.[15] The text-world is built in relation to the physical self, and based on the physical experience: the relationship with the objects around the physical self is called deixis. The self, in this case, is called the origo.[15]Examples of world building elements would be objects in the environment, geographical objects, cultural objects, personal pronouns, definite articles or cultural references. Four categories of world-building elements would be time, location, objects and enactors. These are people other than the origo.[16]

Possible worlds[edit]

The concept of worlds draws influence from the logic of possible worlds, a concept within Possible Worlds Theory.[17][18]This theory is adopted in the area of narratology, but it was initially a philosophical concept developed by philosophers of the analytic school. It was a solution to problems in formal semantics.[18] For example, a problem arises when a hypothetical world (and thusly, a possible one) is created, in which the initial conditions differ from the actual world (see actual world for explication). In that case, the truth conditions of the statements that apply to this hypothetical world are different. Hence, a certain construct is needed that facilitates a world that is seemingly similar to the actual one, that follows laws that are seemingly actual, but has different truths. Essentially, when compared to the actual world, the statements that apply to the hypothetical world are counterfactual. Yet, we can still vividly imagine this hypothetical world as if it is real. This hypothetical world is a possible world.

Possible worlds are also applicable to statements and sentences that are modified by a modal operator.[18] In this case, the possible world is created by an expression of possibility, impossibility, necessity, prohibition, obligation, permission, axiology, epistemiology, belief or desire. Due to these modal operators, once again, the listener (reader) constructs a possible world that is different from the actual one.

Actual world[edit]

The existence of possible worlds relies heavily on a certain idea of reality. Within Possible Worlds Theory, reality is the summum of the imaginable, rather than the summum of what exists physically.[18] Within the imaginable exist possible worlds. Essentially, these possible worlds are 'compared' to the "actual" or "real world".[18] Every possible world is structured by the opposition of this actual world.[18] It functions as the center to reality to all the other members of reality, the possible worlds.[18]


For any world to be possible, it must be linked to the actual world by a relation of accessibility.[18] This notion of accessibility can be described as how much the hyptohetical world that is created by the speaker (writer) matches the actual world and its conditions. For instance, these conditions might include logical laws.[18] Generally, a possible world is accepted by the listener (reader) if it respects the principles of non-contradiction and of the excluded middle.[18]

Ontological status is very important when it comes to the accessibility. As it draws from ontology, it has to do with the nature of the different 'beings' in the discourse-world or text-world. The reader will always see any participant of a world to be a 'real person', belonging to the same ontological domain as the reader.[19] Because of this fact, text-worlds that are being created by any participant of a discourse-world, are open for verification by other entities who exist at the same ontological level. If this is the case, the text-world is participant-accessible.[20] A participant-accessible text world is when a co-participant creates a text-world or world-switch. In that case, it is accepted as reliable. Discourse world entities are real people, sharing the same domain of existence as we do. In face-to-face communication we can negotiate and clarify by interacting with the other participants. In written communication, where we are unable to negotiate, we nevertheless understand our co-participants as real people. The wilful nature of all communications leads us to expect that our co-participants are telling the truth, because lying is considered pathological behaviour.[21]

Enactor accessible text-worlds are created by text world enactors who do not occupy the discourse-world. These text-worlds are processed differently. We recognize that enactorse as real people, but we recognize the ontological difference between us and them. We cannot negotiate with them, so we accept what they say. We have less information about them and their knowledge, so we accept it.[20]

Reliability and authority[edit]

As mentioned above, a participant-accessible text world is a text world created by a real-life person, or an author/teller. An enactor-accessible text world is a text world created by an enactor in the text world. The information that other humans present to us through spoken and written language exists outside the deictic centre. We conceptualize this information as closer to or further away from us according to our evaluation of the reliability of both its origins and its content. Ontology comes into play within the context of creating reliability and authority, and thusly accessibility to a text-world. Techniques that create such reliablity and authority, include[22]

  • If the speaker (writer) uses present tense for the split discourse world;
  • If the speaker (writer) uses the first person for themselves, and second person for the reader;
  • If other enactors appear and disappear from the text-world
  • If the speaker (writer) uses the present perfect to establish a timeless text world;
  • If the enactor in the third person is unsuccessful, and are a group to which the speaker (writer) and the listener (reader) do not belong (creating an exclusive relationship.

Generally, reliability and authority depend heavily on the epistemological structure of a text-world. The more knowledge the speaker/writer seems to have to the reader, the more trustworthy they are.[23]

Text-world advancement[edit]

In order to develop the text-world, several concepts have been differentiated. Text World Theory draws relational processes from Systemic Functional Linguistics.[24] Processes respect unity of time and place. They include the following:

  • Intensive (x is y);
  • Possessive (x has y);
  • Circumstantial (x is with/on/at y).

Other ways of advancing the text world, are the attribute mode, where one element is the attribute the other (carrier & attribute), or the identifier mode, where one element is identified by another (identifier & identified). Proximal deictic signs are used as well (here, there, this, that).[24]

Material processes indicate actions (result of animate actor) or events (result of inanimate actor). If something is the result of the will of an actor, it is defined as an intention process.[25] If something is not deliberate (accidental event), it is defined as a supervention process.[25] The definition of wheter something is animate in the context of Text World Theory, depends on whether there is a goal or not.[25] If there is, it means the actor is animate.

All these are function-advancing-propositions set against the deictic background. The relationship between the world builders and the function advancing propositions is as follows: The function advancing propositions are the majority of the text, while the world builders are the majority in the opening moments of the text. he world builders move to the background when the story advances with the function advancing propositions, and the actor comes to the foreground. New world builders may be added as the story unfolds.[25]

Non-material processes include mental processes (done by a sensor, include perception, cognition and reaction) and existential processes (describing the landscape).[26]

The idea of the analysis of world builders and function advancing propositions of a text world is not simply to label, but to search for the effect (and affect) of the various discourse items. Text World Theory describes the experiential significance. Actors and Sensors who participate in processes in the text are not considered in Text World Theory as mere grammatical operators. They are enactors, conceptual representations of human characteristics, endowed with the same abilities, emotions and reactions we would expect from human beings we encounter.[27]


Within Text World Theory, world-switches are important.[28] They are employed to advance the tex-world, by indicating a shift in inital parameters. They may shift multiple times during the process of the discourse. The deictic center of a text can change because the focaliser changes.[29] Other world-switches include switches in time (tense) or place.[30]

Modality in narratives[edit]

Modality refers to those aspects of language which express a speaker or writer’s attitude to a particular subject. In Text World Theory, modality is the attitude toward a world-switch created by an enactor.[31] Modalities in discourse or in narratives operate in this way:

  • Speakers, writers and enactors create modalized text-worlds in which a particular remote situation is played out;
  • That situation is conceptualized by the hearer or reader as existing at some distance from its creator’s reality. The distance may be spatial, temporal, epistemic, or some combination of these;
  • At the same time, the speaker, writer or enactor also expresses their attitude toward the modal world;
  • The text world may be created in direct speech of the enactor or by a teller.

Each character within a world has a virtual discourse world in their heads themselves, and the reader often needs to keep track of these belief systems as well. There are several types of alternativity that are character-centered in this way:

Epistemic modality[edit]

Epistemic modality or epistemic worlds draw from epistemology, so they are also known as knowledge worlds. They are what the characters in the fictional world belief to be true about their world.[32] Epistemic modality expresses varying degrees of confidence in the truth of a particular subject, from absolute certainty to lack of confidence. Typical lexemes for expressing epistemic modality are:

  • Verbs: suppose, believe, know, think, doubt;
  • Adverbs: doubtfully, supposedly, perhaps, maybe, possibly, certainly, surely;
  • Be ... that-constructions: "Be ... to" or "Be .... that" constructions can carry epistemic commitment (e.g. IT IS sure TO be succesful; IT IS doubtful THAT the Olympics will continue).

The enactor is creating a hypothetical non-existing situation. The reliability depends on the enactor’s conviction or their ability to convince. Here, the hypothetical situation is in the form of a condition, ‘if’ sentence (protasis), where the second clause (apodosis) presents a scary situation that follows from the protasis, and convinces the audience to do their utmost not to let the protasis happen.

Boulomaic modalilty[edit]

Boulomaic modality or wish worlds express varying degrees of boulomaic commitment (positive or negative). They are what characters wish or imagine might be different about their world.[32] These text-worlds are often non-realistic because it is not here and now. It is enactor-accessible (even though the ‘reader’ can understand it on the basis of their knowledge of the world) These boulomaic text-worlds can be quite elaborate. Boulomaic text-worlds present before the protagonist a desired goal (or avoidance of undesired ones). They display how the protaganist is influenced. They explain the actions of actors.[33] Typical lexemes for expressing boulomaic modailty are:

  • Verbs: Want, wish, hope, desire etc. represent various degrees of boulomaic commitment (positive or negative);
  • Adverbs: hopefully;
  • Be ... that-constructions: "Be ... to" or "Be .... that" constructions can carry boulomaic commitment (e.g. IT IS good TO exercise regularly; IT IS regrettable THAT his uncle died so young);
  • When something is hoped/ desired (positive) or feared/ regretted (negative) (e.g. I hope that you will leave. I wish you'd leave. I regret that you're leaving.).

Deontic modality[edit]

Deontic modality draws from deontics: (from Greek deon ‘duty’) and concerns duties, obligation, permission or requirement, so they are also known as obligation worlds.[34] They are different versions of the world filtered through the characters’ sense of moral values.[32] Deontic modality of a text world can originate in enactors’ instructions, demands of legal systems or rules, or even the enactor’s own emotions. They come in the form of instructions or the feeling of obligation. The deontic world is goal-oriented, and has a profound influence on the situation in the story, such as creating an imperative text-world (e.g. it is your obligation to “be/achieve XYZ”, so you must do “XYZ”), and this moves the plot. (e.g. “You ought to call your mother, but of course you don’t have to”.). Negative text-worlds are also processed; first as a positive, and then negated. Identity is formed (in the text) by deontic worlds, by realities to which the enactor has an obligation, and by which they are driven into action. Typical lexemes for expressing deontic modality are:

  • Ranging lexicon from permission to command: must, may, it is forbidden to (within discourse of control) (e.g. Visitors have to leave by six pm.) In a narrative or discourse, a deontic text world is a remote situation which is constructed with a deontic attitude.
  • Be ... that-constructions: "Be ... to" or "Be .... that" constructions can carry deontic directives. (e.g. It is forbidden to feed the animals; it was required that they inform the authorities.)

There is a very strong implication of boulomaic or deontic text-worlds as oppsed to epistemic text worlds on the enactor, because these are giving the enactor an incentive to act; they could be the one thing that moves the whole story.

Other modalities[edit]

Peter Stockwell identifies two other modalities, namely speculative extensions and intention worlds. They are described as follows:

  • Speculative extensions – things the characters anticipate about their world, or other hypotheses they hold.[32]
  • Intention worlds – what characters plan to do to deliberately change their world.[32]
  • Fantasy worlds – the worlds of characters’ dreams, visions, imaginations or fictions that they compose themselves.[32]


In emperical tests, readers report that they are still able to project their sense of an origo to the main focaliser of a text.[29]


Metaphor is used in human language, so it impacts text worlds as well. Within cognitive linguistics, metaphor is explained as a tool for explaining and understanding complex concepts via a simplified expression. This is done by mapping a familiar source domain onto an abstract and unfamiliar target domain.[35] This idea is further developed into conceptual integration, in which the source domain and target domain are merged together into a new conceptual blend that has its own meaning.[35] The reason behind using two different notions to conceptualise a certain passage, is that one of the two notions is probably more physical or close to everyday practise than the other notion. This means that we process the more abstract concept more easily. A condition for metaphor is that the two notions should be comparable in certain aspects, or have things in common.

Metaphor is a factor in Text World Theory as well, because text is essential to metaphor. It is the text and the context that inform the reader as to what the commonality between the two notions is and what kind of background knowledge is needed to understand the metaphor.[36] Furthermore, metaphors create new layers within worlds for the listener (reader). To be exact, metaphors create structures that contain elements which do not exist in the two notions that are being compared.[36] This extra layer indicates that metaphors are processed differntly grom other discourse element is referred to as a blended world.[37]

Usages of Text World Theory[edit]

Text World Theory has proved useful for understanding how and why readers construct mental representations engendered by the act of reading.[38]


  1. 1.0 1.1 "About Text World Theory". textworldtheory.org. 10 February 2015. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  2. Gavins, Joanna (2007). Text World Theory: An Introduction. Edinburgh University Press. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-7486-2990-9. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Dalvai, Stefanie (2018). "Designing a New Structure of Text World Theory (TWT)". GRIN Verlag. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Gavins, p. 8
  5. Werth, Paul (1999). Text worlds: representing conceptual space in discourse. ISBN 9780582229143. OCLC 41504488. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gavins, p. 7
  7. Gavins, Joanna (2013). Text World Theory: An Introduction. ISBN 9780748629909. OCLC 889948161. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  8. Gavins, p. 10
  9. Ibid., p. 20
  10. 10.0 10.1 Ibid., p. 21
  11. Ibid, p. 22
  12. Ibid., p. 23
  13. Lugea, Jane (2017). World building in Spanish and English spoken narratives. London: Bloomsbury USA Academic. p. 69. ISBN 978-1-350-05605-3. OCLC 990289063. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  14. Gavins, p. 36
  15. 15.0 15.1 Ibid., p. 40
  16. Ibid., p. 41
  17. Ibid., p. 12
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 18.6 18.7 18.8 18.9 Ryan, Marie-Laure (2 March 2012). "Possible worlds". The Living Handbook of Narratology. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  19. Gavins, p. 76
  20. 20.0 20.1 Ibid., p. 77
  21. According to the Collins Advanced English Dictionary: "You describe a person or their behaviour as pathological when they behave in an extreme and unacceptable way, and have very powerful feelings which they cannot control." HarperCollins Publishers https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/pathological
  22. For an analysis on reliability and authority from which these tecnhiques are derived, read the chapter "Layers", in Text World Theory: An Introduction.
  23. Gavins, p. 81
  24. 24.0 24.1 Ibid., p. 43
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 Ibid., p. 56
  26. Ibid., p. 62
  27. Ibid., p. 64
  28. Ibid., p. 48
  29. 29.0 29.1 Ibid., p. 46
  30. For an example of a schematic representation of world-switches, see Figure 3.4 in Text World Theory: An Introduction.
  31. Gavins, p. 90
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 32.4 32.5 Stockwell, Peter (2002). Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 95–96. ISBN 9780203995143. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  33. Gavins, p. 94
  34. Ibid., p. 98
  35. 35.0 35.1 Gavins, p. 147
  36. 36.0 36.1 Ibid., p. 148
  37. Ibid., p. 149
  38. Canning, Patricia (21 May 2017). "Text World Theory and real world readers: From literature to life in a Belfast prison". Language and Literature: International Journal of Stylistics. 26 (2): 172–187. doi:10.1177/0963947017704731. PMC 5732594. PMID 29278261.

Category:Linguistics Category:Psychology Category:Cognition Category:Narratology Category:Metaphors

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